Taiwanese designer Godkidlla often draws from his home country’s vigorous and extravagant local visual culture–represented in the bold colors and large fonts that dominate his distinctive design work.
Taiwanese Electric Flower Cars (trucks converted into stages for performance and adorned with neon-lit decorations), lottery newsletters (used by the older generation to calculate their lottery numbers for a given week), and even cable TV commercials, which most people would deem too gaudy to ever be an example of so-called fine culture, all serve as inspiration for his designs. According to Godkidlla, there is no single definition of beauty. He believes that everyday culture represents the reality of a particular population, and that proper appropriation can turn the ostensibly vulgar into something that is both visually appealing and meaningful.
In 2013, Godkilla won the AMP Award for Best Artwork for his design for Taiwanese indie rock band Sorry Youth’s album, Seafood. In the same year, the same album was nominated for the 24th Golden Melody Award for Best Recording Package. For the album, Godkidlla used a milkfish as the key image. The contrasting colors of yellow and black accompanied by playful text resulted in a simple yet strong visual quality that garnered unanimous votes from the AMP jury and acclaim from fellow designers.
Godkidlla’s choice to feature a milkfish on the album cover was heavily influenced by life in Taiwan; whenever Sorry Youth returned to their home city, Kaohsiung, to play a show, they would eat at the same milkfish congee restaurant. Not only does the milkfish represent a part of the life of the band member, it can also be considered an emblem for Taiwanese youth. As Godkidlla explains, milkfish is bony, moves fast and survives only in unpolluted water. These qualities parallel with the attributes of young Taiwanese people: they are not afraid to speak out in the face of injustice and, unlike the generations before them, they are willing to forgo some aspects of economic success and development in Taiwan for a healthier natural environment.
The image of the milkfish was created by hand-stamping a real fish onto paper. Godkidlla bought a milkfish at the traditional market, took it home and removed the slime from its body, then covered the fish by ink and pressed it onto a piece of paper. After just a few attempts, he managed to create a realistic and lively imprint of the fish. Image obtained, he then proceeded to make a soup out of the inked milkfish. “Normally milkfish soup is clear, but mine turned out to be more the color of a mutton hot pot broth,” he laughs.
Godkidlla’s cover design for Taiwanese indie band LTK Commune’s 2014 album, Country.People. Blues., is also influenced by local culture, specifically Huaxi Street in Taipei’s Wanhua District. Elements of the shrines, temple carvings, Taoist deities, Electric Flower Cars, and lottery newsletters found on the street are all incorporated into the design. The album won three Golden Indie Music Awards in Taiwan: Best Album, Best Band, and the Jury Award. The recognition ensured the album cover was one of the most celebrated in the graphic design industry at the time.
What lies behind Godkidlla’s decision to visit Huaxi Street for aesthetic inspiration? LTK Commune, he explains, is one of the most subversive grassroots bands in Taiwan. Their songs often portray the harsh conditions and experiences of people living out their days at the very bottom of society. The album Country. People. Blues. also has a strong focus on religion.
Godkidlla wanted the experience of opening the album to mimic that of opening the doors to a Taoist shrine. While it was the Third Lotus Prince (Nezha)–a Chinese mythological figure–that is mentioned in LTK Commune’s lyrics, the designer chose to instead feature the Eight Immortals, also important figures in Chinese mythology, on the cover, who he says better represent the “spirit” of the band. In the design, traditional temple carvings are deconstructed by Godkidlla to form new visual interpretations. Egrets stand on a zigzagged rainbow, while two guardian lions occupy two leaves on each side of the cover. The design features a radial, kaleidoscopic pattern that attempts to mimic the sense of ecstasy felt at religious practices.
The pages that list the song lyrics each feature a Taoist deity or popular magical figure. In order to represent the natural characteristics of each god, Godkidlla hand wrote all the lyrics in calligraphy, a feat that took him four to five days to finish because each time he made a mistake he had to start from the beginning. The designer chose fonts commonly used in temple parades and celebrations, while the back cover emulates the layout of a lottery newsletter. “Many bookstores on Huaxi Street sell magical figures and religious scriptures. There, you can find many intriguing examples of everyday visual culture. They might look unrefined, but at the same time they are raw and powerful,” he says.
Godkidlla himself comes from a solidly working class family in Taiwan, and as a child was surrounded by these representations of everyday visual culture. It was only when he began studying graphic design at university that he realized these traditional styles were seen as kitsch and gaudy by some people. As a result, he started out his design career creating styles more akin to what was popular in the West at the time, but found these designs were constantly being rejected by his clients.
“My clients from southern Taiwan–cram schools, seafood restaurants, and what not–always wanted me to make the font size bigger and add bolder colors,” he notes. “At first I was extremely frustrated. I felt forced to accept this extravagant style. Then I saw some works by designers from abroad and thought the flashiness was, in the end, quite nice. I decided it was too early to give up. If I couldn’t fight it, why shouldn’t I just I ride with it?”
It was after this that he began to proudly take his inspiration from the culture he saw all around him. Be it stenciled or vintage shop signage or traditional temple carvings, all became a creative resource for him. He transformed these elements into his design and made adjustments according to the needs of his clients. Eventually, these large fonts and bright colors became his trademark: “I think I am possibly the only designer in Taiwan today who would be asked to use a smaller font size by a client.”
Invited to comment on the concept of huaren design, or design created for and within Chinese communities, Godkidlla notes that it is difficult to generalize the output from the Greater China region into one aesthetic style. He believes each place has its own unique character. For example he says, Taiwan is a tropical country and has been subjected to a lot of foreign and colonial influences over the centuries. Japanese design is also very popular in Taiwan, and it is these combined influences that make Taiwanese design unique.
In order to succeed in the global design market, Godkidlla believes it is essential to incorporate branding into design practice. “In the future, it will be hard for any one designer to satisfy all markets sectors. Adding to this is the advancement of artificial intelligence, which is likely to result in job losses for designers,” he explains. “It is therefore important to create an individual style. It is only by setting yourself apart from other designers that you can secure your unique place in the market.”
Born in 1981, Godkidlla has a MA in Graphic Design from Kaohsiung Normal University. He is the owner of Godkidlla Design, co-founder of Decode Magazine, the first magazine in Taiwan to use crowdfunding to get enough capital to launch, and co-founder of two bookstores, TaKaoBooks and Duzubooks. His works range from interdisciplinary art to book packaging, book cover design, poster design, exhibition design, and visual identity design. Godkidlla was nominated for the 24th Golden Melody Award for Best Recording Package for the album design for the Sorry Youth album, Sea Food. He also won an AMP Award for Best Artwork in 2013.